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'True Detective' creator Nic Pizzolatto on Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson his gripping new HBO series
How did a novelist with only two screen credits get to create and run such an ambitious series?
Before creating the new HBO mystery series “True Detective,” Nic Pizzolatto’s only produced scripts were a pair of episodes from “The Killing” season 1. That is not a resume that will generally lead to a writer being given control of an expensive, ambitious series for pay cable’s gold standard, featuring a pair of movie stars in Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, in which he would write all eight episodes himself.
But “True Detective” isn’t an ordinary project, and the brilliant results — I’ll have a review of it tomorrow, but it’s among the most gripping shows I’ve watched in years — speak for themselves. Like “American Horror Story,” it’s set up as a collection of anthology seasons, starting off with the tale of Louisana cops Rustin “Rust” Cohle (McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Harrelson) investigating a serial killer case that winds up spanning 17 years, from 1995 until 2012. In Cohle, an impossibly damaged philosopher with an aptitude for this kind of case, Pizzolatto and McConaughey have created a mesmerizing new character, and Harrelson matches his old friend beat for beat as the more straightforward Hart. Not only did Pizzolatto write every episode, but all were directed by Cary Fukunaga (the 2011 “Jane Eyre”), giving the project a unified, tragically beautiful look and feel.
I spoke with Pizzolatto, a novelist from Louisiana, about the origins of the show, what he learned from (and what he didn’t like about) his time on “The Killing,” what a second season of “True Detective” might look like, and more.
How on earth does a guy with as little TV experience as you have had get the keys to a show like this?
Nic Pizzolatto: I think it was a combination of me being the guy who created the material and owned it, so if you wanted to make it, it had to be with me. Before we took this out to pitch, I had been out west for maybe a year and a half or a little longer. I understood how television gets made, and I knew it was a job I could do. So part of my job in pitching the show is to convince people of my abilities. And, to be fair, something that involves this much talent and this much money, I think if I'd ever done a poor job or been dissatisfactory, I don't I don't think they would have had a problem sidelining me, but maybe I'm wrong about that. Which is only to say that your day-to-day performance is what lets you keep going, I guess.
Before that, where did you get the idea to do this and to specifically do an anthology?
Nic Pizzolatto: It was a combination of a couple of things. In the summer of 2010, I was working on a version of “True Detective” that I was thinking might be my next novel, and it was told in these two first-person voices; Cohle and Hart's voices. They just alternated chapters, telling the story of their 17-year partnership. It was a lot different. There was a lot of changes in that one and it was going to be a massive book, but when I became interested in breaking into television, I began to think how it might play as a television show and that it might actually work better as a television show, given the time shifts and the amount of cues simply having a visual image affords you. In July of 2010, I wrote six scripts, and one of them was the pilot for “True Detective.” I just held on to it for a while until I knew enough and we were in a position to go out and sell it so that we could be assured of making it the way we wanted.
The anthology idea came from a couple of things. I enjoy a third act and I like stories with ending. A lot of my frustration with serialized storytelling is a lot of shows don't have a third act. They have an endless second act, and then they find out it's their last year and often have to hustle to invest a third act, but they were never necessarily organically meaning to to begin with. So I wanted to tell something with a complete story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. And a way a lot of those anthology programs from the previous golden age of television influenced me was that we might be able to tap in to real cinematic talent if the material's good enough. Most television shows are going to require an actor sign up from four to six years, but an anthology show really amounts to five or six months at the most. I thought serious actors might be attracted to that. In cinema, the opportunities for them to do serious adult work are just disappearing day by day, so if they're not interested in playing a superhero, I thought this might be a place where they can come do something that really interested them and engage their craft. In a kind of long-form storytelling, the movie actors don't get to experience a lot of but without requiring the commitments of them that television usually requires, the multi-year contract thing.
My understanding is that McConnaughey was originally approached to play Hart and he said, “No, I want to play Cohle, and you should talk to Woody about playing Hart.” Is that actually what happened?
Nic Pizzolatto: Pretty much. I wanted him to play Cohle. I was really excited about Matthew playing Cohle, but the truth is, Woody was already on a very short list of men we wanted to approach. He had just come off of “Rampart” and “Game Change,” which are two incredible performances and incredibly different performances. So we always had Woody in mind as someone to approach. And when Matthew asked if we considered him, we were like, “Yeah, of course, and maybe you could help with that, since you guys are friends.”
Seeing how good both of them are in these roles, but also thinking about the other kinds of characters they've played over their careers, I kind of want to see a second season that’s just this all over again with them swapping parts, because I think they could do it.
Nic Pizzolatto: Oh, yeah, I think that would be great. And I love working with those guys, and we loved working together, and we're looking for things to do together in the future. I think for cinema actors, it's a very grueling thing. It takes up half their year at least, when they might usually be able to make two movies, or make one movie and enjoy downtime with their family. I would be completely open to anything those guys would want to do. People have asked about them coming back and I just have to say I think that would completely depend upon our actors, and if they wanted to I would of course jump on board. I feel like watching them, it made me say, "Why hasn't anyone put these guys together before in a serious film?" They just play so well off each other. The highest compliment I can give their performances is I think it's impossible to imagine two other guys in these roles after you see them.